Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakely, the youngest of Henry Wakley's eleven children, was born in Membury, Devon, on 11th July, 1795. Henry Wakley was a country squire who bred racehorses. After being educated at the local grammar school, he left at the age of sixteen, to be apprenticed as an apothecary in Taunton. Thomas enjoyed the work and decided to become a surgeon. After training at Guy's Hospital, London, Wakley qualified in 1817.

Wakley established himself as a doctor in Argyll Street, one of the most expensive areas in London and in February 1820 married the daughter of a wealthy iron merchant. Six months later the Wakley's house was destroyed by fire. Wakley's claim for insurance was refused as the fire had been started deliberately. Thomas Wakley claimed that the fire had been an attempt to murder him. While waiting for the insurance company to pay him for his losses, Wakley became a doctor in a less prosperous part of London.

In 1821Wakley met the radical journalist William Cobbett, who published the weekly newspaper Political Register. Wakley told Cobbett about how the need to reform in the medical profession. Cobbett suggested that Wakley should publish a journal that could be used to campaign for these reforms.

Wakley liked the idea and in October 1823 began publishing The Lancet. In the journal Wakley criticised the autocratic powers of the council that ran the Royal College of Surgeons. He also campaigned for a united profession of apothecaries, physicians and surgeons and a new system of medical qualifications to help improve standards in the medical profession.

In 1828 Thomas Wakley became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform. This brought Wakley into contact with other political reformers in London and in 1832 he was asked to become the Radical candidate for Finsbury. With 330.000 potential voters, this new constituency was one of the largest in Britain. With the support of his two closest political friends, Joseph Hume and William Cobbett, Wakley campaigned for an extension of the vote, the removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery and the suspension of the Newspaper Stamp Act. Wakley was defeated in 1832 but he won when he tried again in January 1835.

Thomas Wakley spent the next seventeen years in the House of Commons. Thomas Wakley's maiden speech was an attack on the decision to convict the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Wakley was the main spokesman for the campaign to have the men reprieved and when their freedom was celebrated in 1838 by a vast procession through London, Wakley was the guest of honour, in recognition of the fact that he had done more than any other person in Britain to secure their pardon.

Thomas Wakley was also one of the main opponents of the stamp duty on newspapers. As part of the campaign, Wakley published six issues in 1836 of an unstamped newspaper called A Voice from the Commons. Wakley was also a passionate opponent of the 1834 Poor Law and in 1845 helped to expose the Andover Workhouse scandal.

Wakley remained a strong supporter of parliamentary reform and was one of the few members of the House of Commons who defended the activities of the Chartists. However, Wakley did not agree with all the six points of the Charter. Although he wanted an extension of the franchise, he never publicly argued for universal suffrage. Wakley also had doubts about the wisdom of annual parliaments arguing that he would prefer a triennial system of elections.

As a former doctor Wakley took a particular interest in medical reform. He was mainly responsible for the setting up of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1843 and the General Council of Medical Education and Registration in 1858. His long campaign against the adulteration of food and drink resulted in the passing of the Food and Drugs Act in 1860. Wakley died on 16th May, 1862, and like many other Radicals of the period, was buried at Kensall Green Cemetery.

A Convention was appointed to sit in London for three weeks, for the purpose of superintending its presentation. The body met in London on the 12th of April, 1842, and received the signatures to the National Petition, which in the aggregate were stated to amount to thirty-three thousand. The Petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Duncombe on the 2nd of May, on which occasion there was a large procession.

Duncombe's speech was noble and manly, and elicited the warm esteem of men of all parties; but no amount of good speaking was sufficient to draw forth a response from the House of Commons, and only fifty-one members were found to vote in favour. The House was too cowardly, or too callously indifferent to the condition of the people, to consent to meet the representatives of the suffering poor face to face, and listen to the exposure of their wrongs from those who were best qualified to make it.

Mr. Wakley presented a petition to the House of Commons from one of the guardians of the Andover Union, complaining that men who were in the workhouse employed in crushing bones had been in the habit of selecting and eating from the heap such as had gristle or marrow in them. Sir James Graham promised an inquiry into the conduct of McDougal, the master, who was charged with neglecting the sick poor in refusing them the comforts directed by the medical officer, and having appropriated them to his own use. The matron was also accused of neglect and general unfeeling conduct to the paupers.

16th May 1862. Food Additives.

The problem in the 19thc was food adulteration through additives, many dangerous, included in for instance, coffee, tea, bread and sugar-they once boiled pickled cucumber in lethal copper for instance to improve colour!

These practices were exposed and publicized by Thomas Wakley, founding editor of the Lancet, who died Today in 1862.

Many people are averse to the thought of additives in food, but today deemed necessary as Unsaturated Fats, for example, are susceptible to oxidation.

So Antioxidants are added to foods to reduce rancidity and are present in for example, lard, instant mashed potato, ice-cream, baked goods and dry dessert mixes.

Additives are divided into antimicrobial and antioxidant, without which bread goes stale, fatty food rancid, and most tinned fruit and vegetables lose firmness and colour.

Once there was only pickling and salting, then came freezing and now the many chemical compounds.

Common antimicrobial include calcium propionate, sodium nitrate and nitrite and the sulfites-sulfur dioxide etc.

Common antioxidants included BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) (E 320) is used in oils, margarine and cheese and crisps, and Vitamin E.

Many artificial additives are also enhancers of flavour, and colour such as Tartrazene (E102). Then we have acidulants which are acids and add tang and sour taste to food and soft drinks, also acting as a preservative and antioxidant. Others additives are emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents, thickeners, and sweeteners-the dubious Aspartame (E951)-for instance.

The list of acidulants include:

Acetic acid (E 260) used in pickling using vinegar.

Tartaric acid (E 334) has been replaced by citric acid and used as an emulsifier and bread improver.

Citric Acid (E 330), common to all living things is a naturally occurring organic acid via fermentation of molasses and other sugars by the action of the fungus Aspergillus niger. It is used in jams, tinned food, biscuits, alcohol, cheese and dried soups.

Fumaric acid, made synthetically from Malic Acid, is the strongest tasting food acidulant and has limited applications, It has low solubility. It is used in gelatin, desiccated powders, cheesecakes and powered drinks.

Lactic Acid (E 270) produced synthetically and by natural fermentation, is used in boiled sweets, pickles and as an emulsifier in bread.

Malic Acid (E 296) is found in pears, apples, tomatoes, bananas, cherries and has similar applications to Citric Acid, being the preferred acid in low calorie, and cider and apple drinks.

Phosphoric Acid (E 338) has the second largest application of the acidulants as it is used in cola drinks to give the harsh biting flavour.

An important salt acidulant is potassium hydrogen tartrate (cream of tartar) used in baking powder (bicarbonate of soda) and sugar confectionery.

Organic food has 29 approved E Numbers.

Acids found in wine include tartaric, citric and malic principally. Malic acid is more expensive than Citric Acid and is produced commercially from maleic anhydride.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wakley, Thomas

WAKLEY, THOMAS (1795–1862), reformer, born at Membury in Devonshire on 11 July 1795, was the youngest son of Henry Wakley (1750–1842) of Membury. He was educated at the grammar schools of Chard and Honiton, and at Wiveliscombe in Somerset. When fifteen years of age he was apprenticed to a Taunton apothecary named ​ Incledon. He was afterwards transferred to his brother-in-law, Phelps, a surgeon of Beaminster, as a pupil, and from him passed to Coulson at Henley-on-Thames. In 1815 he proceeded to London to study at the united schools of St. Thomas's and Guy's, known as the Borough Hospitals. The greater part of his medical knowledge was gained, however, at the private school of anatomy in Webb Street, founded by Edward Grainger [q. v.], who was assisted by his brother, Richard Dugard Grainger [q. v.] In October 1817 he qualified for membership of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in the following year went into private practice in the city, taking up his residence in Gerard's Hall. In 1819, with the assistance of Joseph Goodchild, a governor of St. Thomas's Hospital, to whose daughter he was engaged, he purchased a practice at the top of Regent Street. About six months after his marriage, on 27 Aug. 1820, he was murderously assaulted by several men and his house burnt to the ground. The authors of these outrages were never traced, but by some it was conjectured that they were members of Thistlewood's gang, an unfounded rumour having gone abroad that Wakley was the masked man in the disguise of a sailor who was present at the execution of Thistlewood and his companions on 1 May 1820, and who decapitated the dead bodies in accordance with the sentence. Wakley had furnished his house handsomely and insured his belongings, but the Hope Fire Assurance Company refused payment, alleging that he had destroyed his own house. The matter was brought before the king's bench on 21 June 1821, when Wakley was awarded the full amount of his claim with costs. He found that his practice, however, had totally disappeared during the nine or ten months of enforced inaction that followed his wounds, and two years later he settled in practice at the north-east corner of Norfolk Street, Strand. Although the charge of incendiarism was impossible, it was several times revived by ungenerous opponents in the course of his controversies, and on 21 June 1826 Wakley obtained 100l. damages from James Johnson (1777–1845) [q. v.] for a libel in the ‘Medico-Chirurgical Journal,’ in which, with more malice than wit, he compared him to Lucifer.

During this period of his life Wakley made the acquaintance of William Cobbett [q. v.], who also believed himself destined to be a victim of the Thistlewood gang. Under Cobbett's radical influence he became more keenly alive to the nepotism and jobbery prevalent among leading surgeons. In 1823 he founded the ‘Lancet,’ with the primary object of disseminating recent medical information, hitherto too much regarded as the exclusive property of members of the London hospitals, and also with a view to exposing the family intrigues that influenced the appointments in the metropolitan hospitals and medical corporations. For the first ten years of its existence the ‘Lancet’ provoked a succession of fierce encounters between the editor and the members of the privileged classes in medicine. In the first number, which appeared on 5 Oct., Wakley made a daring departure in commencing a series of shorthand reports of hospital lectures. These reports were obnoxious to the lecturers, who feared that such publicity might diminish their gains and expose their shortcomings. On 10 Dec. 1824 John Abernethy (1764–1831) [q. v.], the senior surgeon of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, applied to the court of chancery for an injunction to restrain the ‘Lancet’ from publishing his lectures. The injunction was refused by Lord Eldon, on the ground that official lectures in a public place for the public good had no copyright vested in them. On 10 June 1825, however, a second application was granted, on the plea that lectures could not be published for profit by a pupil who paid only to hear them. The injunction was, however, dissolved on 28 Nov., because hospital lectures were delivered in a public capacity and were therefore public property. After this decision the heads of the medical profession decided to admit the right of the medical public to peruse their lectures, a right which the greatest of them, Sir Astley Paston Cooper [q. v.], had already tacitly allowed by promising to make no attempt to hinder the publication of his lectures, on condition that his name was omitted in the report.

On 9 Nov. 1823 Wakley commenced in the ‘Lancet’ a regular series of ‘Hospital Reports,’ containing particulars of notable operations in the London hospitals. The irritation produced by these reports, and by some remarks on nepotism at St. Thomas's, led to the order for his exclusion from the hospital on 22 May 1824, an order to which, however, he paid no regard. About 1825 he commenced making severe reflections on cases of malpraxis in the hospitals, which culminated on 29 March 1828 in a description of a terribly bungling operation of lithotomy by Bransby Blake Cooper, surgeon at Guy's Hospital, and nephew of Sir Astley Paston Cooper, in which it was plainly asserted that Bransby Cooper was ‘surgeon because he was nephew.’ Cooper sued Wakley for libel, and obtained a verdict, but with damages so small as practically to establish Wakley's main contention of malpraxis. ​ Wakley's expenses were defrayed by public subscription.

These were not the only lawsuits in which Wakley was involved as editor of the ‘Lancet.’ On 25 Feb. 1825 Frederick Tyrrell [q. v.] obtained 50l. damages in an action for libel arising out of the ‘Lancet's’ review of his edition of Cooper's ‘Lectures,’ and somewhat later Roderick Macleod [q. v.] obtained 5l. damages for reflections in the ‘Lancet’ on his conduct as editor of the ‘London Medical and Physical Journal.’

In 1836 the ‘Lancet,’ which was at first published from Bolt Court by Gilbert Linney Hutchinson, was removed to offices in Essex Street, Strand, Wakley acting in reality as his own publisher. Six years later John Churchill undertook the responsibility from his own place of business in Prince's Street, Leicester Square. In 1847 Wakley again became his own publisher, and removed the ‘Lancet’ to its present offices at 423 Strand.

While Wakley was attacking hospital administration he was also carrying on a campaign against the Royal College of Surgeons. The contest arose out of the hospital controversy. In March 1824 the court of examiners issued a by-law making it compulsory for medical students to attend the lectures of the hospital surgeons, unless they obtained certificates from the professors of anatomy and surgery in the university of Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Aberdeen. Wakley, who remembered his own studies under Edward and Richard Grainger, censured the regulation because it excluded many of the best anatomists from teaching to the evident disadvantage of the students. On inquiry he found that the court of examiners, which was self-elected, was entirely recruited from the hospital surgeons. Seeing the hopelessness of redress from such a body, he shifted his ground and boldly assailed the constitution of the college. The college had been reconstituted by royal charter in March 1800 on an oligarchic basis, after an attempt to procure a similar constitution by act of parliament had been defeated in the House of Lords by a general petition of the ordinary members presented by Lord Thurlow. At the present crisis Wakley advised that the whole body of surgeons should again petition parliament, requesting it to abrogate the existing charter and grant a new one, in which it should be a fundamental principle that any official vested with power to make by-laws should be appointed by the suffrage of all the members of the college. Supported by James Wardrop [q. v.], surgeon to George IV, Wakley commenced an agitation against the governing body of the college, which received large support, especially from country surgeons. Vigorous protests against various abuses from correspondents in all parts of England appeared in the ‘Lancet,’ and on 18 Feb. 1826 the first public meeting of members of the college was convened by Wakley at the Freemasons' Tavern. The meeting were about to draw up a remonstrance to the council of the college, when Wakley, telling them that they ‘might as well remonstrate with the devil as with this constitutionally rotten concern,’ prevailed on them in an impassioned speech to petition parliament at once to abrogate the charter. The petition was presented in parliament by Henry Warburton [q. v.] on 20 June 1827, and the House of Commons ordered a return to be made of public money lent or granted to the college. The victory, however, proved barren, the influence of the council being too strong with government to prevent further steps being taken. Wakley's own relations with the governing body did not improve, and early in 1831, while protesting against a slight put upon naval surgeons by an order of the admiralty, he was ejected from the college theatre by a detachment of Bow Street officers, acting on the orders of the council. In 1843 a partial reform in the constitution of the college was effected by the abolition of the self-electing council and the creation of fellows with no limit of number, to whom the electoral privileges were confided. Wakley, however, denounced this compromise as creating an invidious distinction within the ranks of the profession, and his view is largely justified by the state of feeling at the present day.

Finding himself thwarted in his efforts by the coldness of politicians, he resolved himself to enter parliament. He removed from Norfolk Street about 1825 to Thistle Grove (now Drayton Gardens), South Kensington, and in 1828 to 35 Bedford Square. He first made himself known in Finsbury by supporting the reduction of the local rates. In 1832 and 1834 he unsuccessfully contested the borough, but on 10 Jan. 1835 he was returned. He made a great impression in the House of Commons by a speech delivered on 25 June 1835 on behalf of six Dorset labourers sentenced to fourteen years' transportation under the law of conspiracy for combining to resist the reduction of their wages. The effect produced by his speech eventually led to their pardon. He soon gained the respect of the house as an authority on medical matters, and was able by his forcible eloquence to command attention also on general topics. In 1836 he successfully introduced the medical witnesses bill, providing for the proper ​ remuneration of medical men called to assist at post-mortem examinations. In 1840 he succeeded in preventing the post of public vaccinators being confined to poor-law medical officers alone by obtaining a modification of the wording of Sir James Graham's vaccination bill. In 1841 he strongly supported the extramural burial bill [see Walker, George Alfred ]. In 1846 he brought in a bill to establish a uniform system of registration of qualified medical practitioners in Great Britain and Ireland. Though the bill did not pass, it led to the thorough sifting of the question before a select committee, whose deliberations resulted in the Medical Act of 1858, in which Wakley's registration clauses were adopted almost entire. Wakley did not, however, entirely approve of that act, holding that there should be more direct representation of the body of the profession in the medical council instituted by the act. Among other important parliamentary work, he obtained the material reduction of the newspaper stamp duties in 1836. He was an ardent reformer with strong sympathies with the chartists, an advocate for the repeal of the Irish union, a strenuous opponent of the corn laws, and an enemy to lawyers. He retired from parliament in 1852, finding that the pressure of work left him no leisure for his duties. On the foundation of ‘Punch’ in 1841 Wakley's parliamentary action became a favourite theme of satire, and he was constantly represented in the pages of the new journal. His assertion in speaking against the copyright act in 1842 that he could write ‘respectable’ poetry by the mile was singled out for special ridicule, and received a genial reproof from Tom Hood in his ‘Whimsicalities’ (London, 1844).

In 1851 he commenced in the ‘Lancet’ a most useful movement by issuing the results of analyses of food-stuffs in general consumption by the nation. The inquiry, conducted under the title ‘The “Lancet” Analytical Sanitary Commission,’ was an uncompromising attack on the prevalent adulteration and sophistication of food. The investigation, commencing in London, was carried in 1857 into several of the great provincial towns. It immediately caused considerable diminution in adulteration, and in 1855 a parliamentary committee was appointed to consider the subject. The result of the inquiry was the adulteration act of 1860, known as Scholefield's Act [see Scholefield, William ], which rendered penal adulterations which affected the health of consumers. Wakley was only moderately satisfied with the act, which did not deal with the fraudulent aspect of adulteration, and which left the appointment of analysts to the option of the local authorities. The former defect was amended in the Sale of Foods and Drugs Acts of 1875 and 1879.

Wakley is perhaps better known to memory as coroner for West Middlesex than as radical politician or medical reformer. He held the opinion that the duties of corner required a medical rather than legal education. He supported his views in the ‘Lancet’ by numerous examples drawn from contemporary inquests, and on 24 Aug. 1830 presented himself to a meeting of freeholders at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Strand, as the first medical candidate for the post of coroner of East Middlesex. He was narrowly defeated at the poll, but on 25 Feb. 1839 he was elected coroner for West Middlesex. His efforts to raise the status of coroner's juries and establish a decorous mode of procedure at inquests aroused considerable dislike, and he was accused of holding too frequent inquests, especial objection being taken to his holding inquests on those who died in prisons, asylums, and almshouses. On 10 Oct. 1839 the Middlesex magistrates refused to pass the coroner's accounts, but a committee from their body, appointed to investigate the charges, completely justified Wakley's procedure. His position was finally established on 27 July 1840 by the favourable report of a parliamentary committee appointed to inquire into these and subsequent points of dispute. The numerous instances of practical sagacity and of professional skill which Wakley gave in conducting inquests gradually won popular opinion completely to his side. His humanity gained enthusiastic praise from Dickens, who was summoned to serve on a jury in 1841. The most conspicuous example of his power was in 1846 in the case of Frederick John White. In the face of the testimony of army medical officers, the jury, instructed by independent medical witnesses, returned a verdict that the deceased, a private soldier, died from the effects of a flogging to which he had been sentenced. Their verdict produced such an impression that this method of military punishment fell almost at once into comparative disuse, and was almost unknown when formally abolished by the Army Act of 1881.

Wakley acquired some fame as an exposer of charlatans. It was chiefly through his action that John St. John Long [q. v.] was brought to justice in 1830. In the same year, on 4 Feb., he discredited Chabert, the ‘Fire King,’ in the Argyll Rooms, and on 16 Aug. 1838 he conclusively showed at a séance held at his house in Bedford Square that John Elliotson [q. v.], the senior ​ physician of University College Hospital, a believer in mesmerism, had been duped in his experiments by two hysterical girls. His remonstrances concerning the unfair treatment of medical referees by assurance companies led to the establishment in 1851 of the New Equitable Life Assurance Company, and to a great improvement in the conduct of assurance agencies in general. At the time of his death he projected an inquiry into the working of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which he thoroughly detested. The inquiry, however, did not take place until three years later.

Wakley died at Madeira on 16 May 1862, and was buried on 14 June at Kensal Green cemetery. On 5 Feb. 1820 he married the youngest daughter of Joseph Goodchild, a merchant of Tooley Street, London. She died in 1857, leaving three sons. The eldest son, Thomas Henry Wakley, senior proprietor of the ‘Lancet,’ born 20 March 1821, died 6 April 1907. The youngest, James Goodchild, succeeded his father as editor of the ‘Lancet.’ On his death in 1886 his brother Thomas Henry and his son Thomas became co-editors.

The interests of Wakley's life were various, but the motives governing his action were always the same. He hated injustice, especially when he found it in alliance with power. Athletic in bodily habit, he possessed a mind no less fitted for successful strife. Though he aroused strenuous opposition and bitter ill will among his contemporaries, time has proved his contentions in every instance of importance to be just. Some of the abuses he denounced are still in existence, but their harmfulness is acknowledged the greater number have been swept away, chiefly through his vigorous action. He was not accustomed to handle an opponent gently, and many passages in his earlier diatribes are almost scurrilous. But no feeling of personal malice entered into his controversies he spoke or wrote solely with a view to portraying clearly injustice or wrongdoing, and never with the purpose of paining or humiliating an enemy. Many who opposed him on particular questions became afterwards friends and supporters. A bust of Wakley by John Bell stands in the hall of the ‘Lancet’ office. A portrait, painted by K. Meadows, has been engraved by W. H. Egleton.

[Sprigge's Life of Wakley, 1897 (with portraits) Report of the Trial of Cooper v. Wakley, 1829 Francis's Orators of the Age, 1847, pp. 301–21 Lancet, 1862, i. 609 Gent. Mag. 1862, ii. 364 Corrected Report of the Speeches delivered by Mr. Lawrence at Two Meetings of Members of the Royal College of Surgeons, 1826 Day's Brief Sketch of the Hounslow Inquest, 1849 Gardiner's Facts relative to the late Fire and Attempt to murder Mr. Wakley, 1820 Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1898.]

Thomas Wakley

Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Charity & Public Work &bull Communications &bull Science & Medicine. A significant historical date for this entry is July 11, 1795.

Location. 51° 31.106′ N, 0° 7.838′ W. Marker is in London Borough of Camden, England, in Greater London County. Marker is on Bedford Square just north of Adeline Place, on the left when traveling north. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 35 Bedford Square, London Borough of Camden, England WC1B 3ES, United Kingdom. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Thomas Hodgkin (a few steps from this marker) Anthony Hope (within shouting distance of this marker) Bedford College for Women (about 90 meters away, measured in a direct line) Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (about 90 meters away) Ram Mohun Roy (about 90 meters away) Sir Harry Ricardo (about 150 meters away) Charles Kitterbell (about 150 meters away) Lord Eldon (about 150 meters away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in London Borough of Camden.

Also see . . .
1. Thomas Wakley (Wikipedia). "Thomas Wakley (11 July 1795 – 16 May 1862) was an English surgeon. He gained fame

as a social reformer who campaigned against incompetence, privilege and nepotism. He was the founding editor of The Lancet, a radical Member of Parliament (MP) and a celebrated coroner." (Submitted on January 10, 2018.)

2. The Lancet (Wikipedia). 'The Lancet is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal. It is one of the world's oldest and best known general medical journals. The Lancet was founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley, an English surgeon who named it after the surgical instrument called a lancet, as well as after the architectural term "lancet arch", a window with a sharp pointed arch, to indicate the "light of wisdom" or "to let in light".' (Submitted on January 10, 2018.)

Advances in the History of Psychology

The British Library has somewhat of a mesmeristic theme going on with their programming this season:

On their Untold Lives blog, Christopher Green (a different Chris Green than ours at York) writes about the career of Annie De Montford, a popular mesmerist who worked in the UK and the US in the 1880s. Read it here.

De Montford is also featured in the library’s ongoing exhibit Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, along with other historical figures who worked as magicians, pantomimes, and conjurors. The show is free, and on until March 12th. More information can be found here.

Not least, a talk will be given on March 6th by Wendy Moore titled The Mesmerist: Science vs Superstition in the Victorian era. From the flyer: ”

“…when mesmerism wafted over the Channel from France, physician John Elliotson was intrigued and resolved to harness its benefits for medicine. But his surgeon friend Thomas Wakley, editor of the influential Lancet, was disturbed and soon determined to expunge all trace of mesmerism from British shores.

Their battle throws into sharp focus fundamental questions about the fine dividing line between medicine and quackery, between science and superstition, in a Victorian society bedazzled by the magic of the music hall. And it poses questions – about hypnotism and other alternative therapies – for us today too.”

Thomas Wakley - History

The brief and strange history of mesmerism and surgery

Tyler Rouse
Stratford, Ontario, Canada

A Practitioner of Mesmerism using Animal Magnetism
Wood engraving. Mesmer, Franz Anton 1734-1815.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

The modern era of surgery is often thought to have begun with the introduction of ether, allowing surgeons to operate on insensible patients, and do more than ever before. However, before that day in October, 1846 in Boston where ether was used publicly for the first time, surgeons did attempt to alleviate the suffering of their patients through a number of ways, including herbal concoctions, alcohol, and opium. But one of the strangest methods had a brief moment of fame in the middle of the nineteenth century, and was in fact in direct competition with ether. The eminent British surgeon, Robert Liston, after performing the first operation under ether in Europe, made reference to it with his famous line, “This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow.”

Mesmerism is named after its founder, the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who described his theory of “animal magnetism” in the late eighteenth century, claiming that a universal fluid was the determinant of all health. 1 This theory postulated that magnets could control the fluid’s influence on disease, as improper flow or congestion was felt to be the cause of illness. This was summed up in Mesmer’s statement “there is only one disease and one cure.” 2 By manipulating this secret fluid, Mesmer could put patients in a state of peaceful sedation, which was likely an example of clinical hypnosis. 3

Despite “animal magnetism” being thoroughly discredited in Paris by a Royal Commission set up by King Louis XVI in 1784, 1 its popularity persisted, with a revival occurring in Britain in the 1840s.

While there were reports of mesmerism being used to control pain in a clinical setting, the first reported use of mesmerism in surgery occurred in Paris on April 12, 1829, when the surgeon Jules Cloquet removed a tumor from the breast of a sixty-four year old woman, Madame Plantin. The operation took ten to twelve minutes, during which the patient showed no signs of discomfort. She remained in a “mesmeric state” for two days, and upon waking had no recollection of the surgery. 3,4

In that same year, an Irishman known simply as Chenevix brought mesmerism from Paris to London, where he gave several demonstrations of the technique. This caught the attention of the English physician John Elliotson, who arranged for Chenevix to try it out on patients in St. Thomas Hospital, the results of which were published in the London Medical and Physical Journal. 5

One of Elliotson’s close friends, Thomas Wakley, had started a medical journal called The Lancet just a few years earlier, with the mission to expose and denounce quackery. In the first edition, Wakley pledged to seek to end “mystery and concealment” in medicine in order to “detect and expose the impositions of ignorant practitioners.” 6 Elliotson’s success came in part from The Lancet publishing his lectures, which led to his appointment as professor at the new University College Hospital. While there, he invited yet another practitioner of mesmerism, the French Baron Jules Dupotet, to demonstrate his techniques on patients. Elliotson published his results in The Lancet, launching mesmerism into the minds of the nineteenth century British medical establishment.

Demonstrations were held in the University College Hospital lecture theater, attracting large crowds and some famous visitors, including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. 6 This led to some jealousy amongst his peers, and an opposition movement was led by the famous surgeon Robert Liston, who by then was head of surgery at University College Hospital. 5 This came to a head at a meeting of the Medical Committee of the Hospital in June of 1838, which resulted in a resolution to stop the public demonstrations. By September of that year, Elliotson’s friend Wakley had turned on him, and The Lancet published editorials denouncing mesmerism after the failed testing of two famous patients at Elliotson’s home in Bedford Square in August. On December 27, 1838, the Council of the University College passed a resolution to ban the practice of mesmerism or animal magnetism from the hospital, leading to the resignation of John Elliotson. 5

He did not give up so easily on mesmerism, however, and founded a journal entitled The Zoist, “a journal of cerebral physiology and mesmerism and their application to human welfare.” 7 This ran from April of 1843 to December of 1855, and within it, Elliotson published reports of painless surgical operations under mesmerism, the most famous of which were performed by the surgeon James Esdaile in India.

Esdaile worked for the East India Company and was in charge of the Native Hospital at Hooghly, India. On April 4, 1845, inspired by Elliotson, he performed his first operation on a mesmerized patient. By January 22, 1846, Esdaile reported seventy-three cases. 5 There were other reports of success from around the world in the pages of The Zoist. In fact, a number of hospitals dedicated to mesmerism would appear in Europe and England, including Bristol, Dublin, and Exeter, 7 as well as the London Mesmeric Infirmary started by Elliotson in Bedford Square, across from his own home, which operated from 1850-1852. 8

But the most successful mesmeric hospital, the Calcutta Mesmeric Hospital, was commissioned by the Governor General of Bengal and led by Esdaile. There he performed thousands of operations under mesmerism, including amputations, lithotomies, scrotal tumor resections, hydrocele repairs, and cataract removals. 5 Interestingly, while working there, Esdaile experimented with a newer method of pain control recently described by a Boston surgeon, known as ether. And he seemed to immediately recognize its power, if not its inevitable replacement of mesmerism: “By cautious and graduated doses, and with a knowledge of the best antidotes, I think it extremely probable that this power will soon become a safe means of procuring insensibility, for the most formidable surgical operations even.” 5

If Esdaile did not see the writing on the wall for mesmerism, Robert Liston certainly did. Following the first reported case of ether used as an anesthetic on October 16, 1846, 9 it did not take Liston long to follow suit. On December 19 of that same year, Liston performed an above-knee amputation under ether anesthesia. At the conclusion of the operation, the patient asked, “When are you going to begin?” leading Liston to famously proclaim, “This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow.” 10

Thus began the inevitable decline of mesmerism in surgery. While its proponents rightfully proclaimed that it was much safer, the results with ether anesthesia were irrefutable. And this was helped along by Thomas Wakley and The Lancet, which published 112 articles on ether anesthesia in the first six months of 1847. 11 And at the announcement of the opening of a Mesmeric Hospital in London, it published a devastating poem in the editorial pages: 5

Publication by Dr. John Elliotson describing operations
under mesmerism
. Wellcome Images,
Wikimedia Commons

It appears from your last, as I erst had suspected

That a Mesmeric Hospital’s to be erected

And if the subscriptions pour in pretty fast,

The scheme will perhaps be accomplished at last.

Dr. E. will of course be the leading physician!

A man of acknowledged and vast erudition,

Well versed in the art and the cream of the joke is,

He has booked for the nurses the two little Okeys.

Then away with examiners, drugs and degrees

Away with old fashions, excepting the fees

Away with the Hall, and away with the College

Away with chirurgo-medical knowledge

The “passes” will act like the wand of a fairy,

For Mesmer’s the “grand plenipotentiary.”

All the hospitals’ heads will be hid and diminished,

The moment this foetal Mesmeric is finished,

And paupers, in future will learn to despise,

King’s College, The London, St. George’s and Guy’s.

No more shall we hear the afflicted complain,

Operations will give more of pleasure than pain

And ladies will smile in their mesmerised trance

As the pains of their uterine efforts advance.

Then shut up the schools, burn the Pharmacopoeia,

Let us carry out all Dr. Mesmer’s idea:

And whilst skeptics their agonized vigils are keeping

His disciples will through their afflictions be sleeping.

Although Elliotson raged at the “etherists” in the editorial pages of The Zoist, and other mesmerism supporters continued to argue its advantages, by the 1850s mesmerism and surgery had parted ways, and the mesmeric hospitals all closed, with chemical anesthetics having thoroughly replaced mesmerism in the operating theater. However, credit must be given where it is due. Mesmerism has essentially vanished from medical practice (although its descendant lives on under the name of therapeutic hypnosis, bestowed upon it by the Scottish surgeon James Braid in 1843), 5 but it did introduce the concept of insensibility during surgery, and likely launched ether into the stratosphere by providing a foil for it to compete with for the attention of the public and medical establishment alike.


  1. Parish D. Mesmer and his critics. N J Med. 199087(2):108-110.
  2. Mesmer FA: Maxims on Animal Magnetism. Mt. Vernon, NY, The Eden Press, 1957.
  3. Schulz-Stubner S. Clinical Hypnosis and Anesthesia – An Historical Review and Its Clinical Implications in Today’s Practice. Bull Anesth Hist. 2000 Jan18(1):1,4-5.
  4. Hammond D C. Hypnosis as Sole Anesthesia for Major Surgeries: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives. Am J Clin Hypn. 200851(2):101-121.
  5. Rosen G. Mesmerism and Surgery: A Strange Chapter in the History of Anesthesia. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 19461(4):527-550.
  6. Moore W. John Elliotson, Thomas Wakley, and the mesmerism feud. The Lancet. 2017389(10083):1975-1976.
  7. James C D. Mesmerism: A Prelude to Anesthesia. Proc Roy Soc Med. 197568(7):446-447.
  8. Fuge C A. Bedford Square: A connexion with mesmerism. 198641(7):726-730.
  9. Bigelow H J. Insensibility during surgical operations produced by inhalation. Boston Med Surg J. 184635:309-317.
  10. Surgery between Hunter and Lister: As exemplified by the Life and Works of Robert Liston. Proc Roy Soc Med. 197265:26-30
  11. Ethereal Epidemic: Mesmerism and the Introduction of Inhalation Anaesthesia to Early Victorian London. Soc Hist Med. 1991 Apr4(1):1-27.

DR. TYLER B. ROUSE, has long held an interest in the history of medicine, and in particular, the history of modern surgery. He is the creator and producer of the ongoing podcast series “Legends of Surgery,” which covers a wide variety of topics within the world of surgery. As well, he has a number of publications covering both academic topics and medical humanities.

Sir Astley Paston Cooper

Cooper, like Wakley, was a countryman, the son of a Norfolk parson. 4, 5 Like Wakley he had married well and his personal brilliance and his wife's wealth propelled him into a glittering surgical career in London (

Figure 2 Sir Astley Paston Cooper (from the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Royal College of Surgeons)

He was also one of the richest doctors in London and much of his income was derived from his extremely well-attended public lectures, for which medical students paid handsomely. Publication of these lectures in a sixpenny newspaper had the potential to severely damage his income.

Cooper's response typified his playful nature. He posed as a patient to gain entry to Wakley's office where, incredulously, he discovered Wakley in the very act of editing a further lecture destined for publication in The Lancet. There are different versions of this encounter – probably not their first, because Wakley studied under Cooper at Guy's – but the most appealing is that both men simultaneously recognized the absurdity of the situation, broke into laughter and became firm friends. 7 Other accounts portray a less charitable reaction from Cooper, 8 although the outcome was the same. Wakley was, on this occasion, spared the prospect of a law suit for plagiarism and Cooper agreed to further publication of these lectures as long as he was not identified as their originator.

Wakley&rsquos death and legacy

In later life, Thomas Wakley developed tuberculosis and sought better health in Madeira. There, in May 1862, he fell while disembarking a boat, precipitating a massive fatal haemoptysis. His embalmed body enclosed in a simple coffin lies in the catacomb of Kensal Green Cemetery.

Many years earlier, Wakley had been exonerated publicly from any involvement in the execution of the Cato Street gang. Rid of that myth and having survived its potentially lethal ­consequences, he pursued an unwavering commitment to high standards of medical professionalism by ruthlessly exposing archaic rituals in the royal colleges that were hindering their development. Had he and his likeminded colleagues not done so, the colleges might have declined irretrievably such that they became merely clubs for medical men wealthy enough to maintain them.

Last name: Wakely

Recorded in a number of individual spellings including Wackley, Wakeley, Wackly, Wakley and Wakely, this is an English post medieval locational surname. It originates from the village of Wakeley in the county of Hertfordshire, north of London, in the region known as 'The Home Counties'. The village is ancient being recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as 'Wacherlei', from the pre 7th century Olde English 'Waca', a personal name of some popularity, and meaning 'watchful' plus the suffix 'leah', meaning a clearing in a wood, and the origin of the popular surnames Lea, Lee and Leigh. --> Locational surnames were given either to the lord of the manor, although we have no such record in this case, or to people after they left their original homes and moved elsewhere. 'Elsewhere' may be the next village or more probably London, where this surname in all its spellings is well recorded. Interestingly, the first recording that we have of this name is from the opposite direction entirely, and is that of Roger de Wakeley, who is to be found in the 1332 Subsidy Tax Rolls, of the county of Staffordshire, where he held substantial lands. The surname is also well recorded in the county of Kent, and in Ireland, where in 1623 Thomas Wakeley of Ballyburly, Kings County, was a landowner registered with the Ulster Office. Another interesting name holder was Thomas Wakley M.D., and co-founder with William Cobbett in 1823, of the famous medical magasine 'The Lancet'. He was an early campaigner to prevent manufacturers from adulterating food, a fight which still goes on.

© Copyright: Name Origin Research 1980 - 2017

Last name: Wakeley

Recorded in a number of individual spellings including Wackley, Wakeley, Wackly, Wakley and Wakely, this is an English post medieval locational surname. It originates from the village of Wakeley in the county of Hertfordshire, north of London, in the region known as 'The Home Counties'. The village is ancient being recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as 'Wacherlei', from the pre 7th century Olde English 'Waca', a personal name of some popularity, and meaning 'watchful' plus the suffix 'leah', meaning a clearing in a wood, and the origin of the popular surnames Lea, Lee and Leigh. --> Locational surnames were given either to the lord of the manor, although we have no such record in this case, or to people after they left their original homes and moved elsewhere. 'Elsewhere' may be the next village or more probably London, where this surname in all its spellings is well recorded. Interestingly, the first recording that we have of this name is from the opposite direction entirely, and is that of Roger de Wakeley, who is to be found in the 1332 Subsidy Tax Rolls, of the county of Staffordshire, where he held substantial lands. The surname is also well recorded in the county of Kent, and in Ireland, where in 1623 Thomas Wakeley of Ballyburly, Kings County, was a landowner registered with the Ulster Office. Another interesting name holder was Thomas Wakley M.D., and co-founder with William Cobbett in 1823, of the famous medical magasine 'The Lancet'. He was an early campaigner to prevent manufacturers from adulterating food, a fight which still goes on.

© Copyright: Name Origin Research 1980 - 2017

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